(WHY) ARE WE EMBARRASSED TO TALK ABOUT BEAUTY?
Willem, Tije, Floor, Raoul, Renée, Yvo, Matthijs, Anandi, Rick, Rob and Jacob met in the Zwarte Doos on the third Thursday of the month and as we were all Dutch speakers we decided to hold the meeting in Dutch. It was a hefty conversation, which is pretty well impossible to reproduce in its proper sequence, so this story is a story about some of the points that were made.
Here is the slide:
This slide and the remark on it belonged to Nick Zangwil and was part of his speech at the ISPA conference in Delft last July. The conference was on the difficult subject of autonomy in architecture, so whatever the remark meant to prof. Zangwil, (and it is difficult to conceive how saying that a space is sterile is giving a sign of embarrassment but there you are) the slide became the occasion for today’s theme and its statement, wrested from its proper context, the subject for today’s investigation.
Why are we embarrassed to talk about beauty?
So beauty or in this case doing a beautiful thing, becomes embarrassing, something we should feel ashamed spending time and money on. This time, effort and money could be better spent, namely on the poor. Perfume is a luxury that costs a great deal of money (even then!) but does not itself give any useful return on the investment made. But is this true?
We can qualify that judgment surely. We could legitimately say: Even ‘beauty-or-ornament’ can be useful, can serve a purpose, can have a function. I can use beauty-or-ornament to communicate about me and mine, to affirm my status, to show my aspiration to a status that I desire to have. I can use it to show my wealth, I can use ornaments as attributes of my intellectual or social standing. I can use ornament to display or complement my beliefs, and my attitude to things. I can simply use ornament to differentiate the special from the everyday. If I can use ornament in all these ways, it surely can be said to serve some purpose?
And if something can be said to serve some purpose it must contribute to a functionalism of sorts, that is, if functionalism is the attitude whereby we ask form to complement or assist some predetermined function. But even then we might say that we find the devotion of funds to such functions a waste of money, as Le Corbusier did, but we cannot say that ornament or indeed the beauty that is associated with ornament is useless, or purposeless.
Is doing a beautiful thing, like the lady did to Jesus, embarrassing because we could spend the money on more urgent or more important things? Why is it that precisely that money should be spent on other things. What is it that makes the doing or making of a beautiful thing a waste of time and money? Does not the perfume maker benefit, does not the craftsman get satisfaction from the work done? Jesus does not see the problem as an either/or kind of problem, but as an and/and problem. You can do beautiful things and take care of the poor.
The one in no way prevents you doing the other. Perhaps it is even rather hypocritical to think that they are mutually exclusive. Perhaps using expensive perfume is a way to help the poor. After all you spent the money on someone and that someone has the freedom to spend the money you spent on his perfume any way he wants to. Perhaps he is thinking of the poor. Perhaps he uses the money to keep his extended family clothed. Perhaps you should encourage him to devote some of his profits to helping the less privileged.
The one does not need to exclude the other. On the contrary, Keynesian economics dictates that money should flow, should make the world go round. Much of Keynsian economics has now been superseded by other theories, but this one stands. Spending money distributes it. The people most indignant about the doing of a beautiful thing, (in the Gospel of St. John it was Judas Iscariot who was most indignant at Jesus, a point picked up in the Musical Jesus Christ Superstar) are frequently the most hypocritical. (read Mark 14:9). And let’s face it, what has Le Corbusier’s Radiant City exactly done for the poor, or indeed for anyone? It may have been well-intentioned but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Hygiene is an important but certainly not the only criterion for a healthy city.
We appear to be confused about the way we think we think about beauty and about the way we talk about it, or at least in the way we use the word beautiful in day to day conversation. Particularly those who would like to have beauty banned from any serious conversation about design. In this sense Nick Zangwil’s point as it appears in the slide, is spot on. The old guard of studio tutors certainly thought (and some still think) that it is a particularly good idea not to talk about beauty.
Why? Because they want to base their arguments not on a word they cannot properly grasp but on more ‘objective’ arguments. That is fair enough, except that in providing those supposedly objective arguments they dig an even deeper hole for themselves and spend the rest of their lives ignoring it. Either they affirm their objective arguments with the word beautiful: “Oh yeah! That’s beautiful!” (Ja, mooi!) And not only that, but when you listen carefully to what they decide to base their arguments on, your toes begin to curl. Their convictions are grounded on the silliest of notions. They talk about a building “really being there” and say this with a particular enthusiasm as if it meant something, as if other buildings aren’t. They accompany that phrase with a gesture as if they are holding a ball and lifting it up and down in front of their chest. And then they say: “I don’t care about beauty, I like buildings that stand there, I like a macho building (een stoer gebouw).” Well, that is fine. Anyone should be free to like what they like, and macho buildings (stoere gebouwen) certainly say something with great specificity than the word beauty ever can. Similarly, traditional buildings, classical buildings (often with ornaments) are by such people dismissed as ‘dowdy’ or ‘frumpy’ (truttig). Is that what the whole thing comes down to? Well, whatever you like but this does not release someone using these predicates from the responsibility of defining the criteria for macho-ness or frumpy-ness, either by describing them or by showing where they reside in a particular example. That brings us back to beauty.
Beauty can be defined as an indefinable predicate, as a judgment that affirms, approves, declares joy or whatever, without saying what it is that it refers to, just judging that which it is applied to beautiful. Each such judgments arrives at the same conclusion, namely that whatever is under consideration is beautiful but means something quite different as the particular beauty specified may differ but also the way that a particular instance of beauty answers those specification is different.
These specifications or criteria come to be defined through familiarity and study. They are discoverable in the situation or event we study so that they can be pointed out. In another situation the same criteria might of course not hold and you would need other criteria to come to the same judgment. This would mean something very different. The sophisticated designer knows how to analyse the beauty of particular situations and events and relate the findings into something like causal and relational coherence. We need indefinable predicates like beauty and goodness because the possibilities of finding beauty and goodness are indeterminate.
You cannot find everything beautiful at once but you can find beauty in anything if you put your mind to it. If we had different names for all the ways we can approve or find joy in something we would need an almost infinite vocabulary instantly accessible. That is asking a lot of our brain. Mind you, few people practise their ability to find beauty. Few have become athletes of beauty finding.
Perhaps then we are right to be embarrassed to talk about beauty because the use of the word beauty merely shows up our heavily pixilated and conditional view of the world, expressing our approval and joy in container words such as beauty which never really appear to carry a very interesting load. But if so, we should feel embarrassed about ourselves and our aesthetic lethargy.
The implication of this is that we need knowledge and sophistication in order to appreciate something as beautiful, (who brought this in?) At the same time the predicate beautiful is just a word to express approbation and joy. We appeared to be agreeing here: beauty is the product of knowledge! We need knowledge of something to find it beautiful! Even the most amazing revelation needs a well-prepared place in our mind to receive it and find it beautiful. We learn quickly. We start building our frame of reference in which we can find beauty from the time we are in our mother’s belly. What is the first thing that made us joyful? Was it the repeated gentle sound of a voice? Mum’s voice as she carried us? And then when we were born was it the milk, the soft swaddling clothes, the looking face of a loving mother, and her voice? We learn how to appreciate things and develop our capacity for joy..
But then Floor disagreed. She said: ‘but wait a minute. There are experiences that we do not have knowledge of, that surprise us with joy!’ We all tried hard to deny it but we had to agree with her. Especially when Raoul pointed out that his clients become happy and enthusiastic about a design precisely when it reveals possibilities they themselves had not thought of. So how does this problem relate to what we just said? Is it so different?
Rick suggested we have a schema in our head of things we know and understand and that this schema sort of expands and develops as we learn more. That it can, if it has a basis, accommodate the new if it can relate the new to what is already there. The possibilities Raoul’s clients had not thought of themselves they recognise as good ideas.
Your frame of reference grows and by growing accommodates the new. But then Renee found that problematic because she liked melody and classical music while her brother liked rhythm and jazz music. So there is, we speculated, something that shapes our schema that decides that we like this or that and so acquires more definite shape. It could change, but as things settle, change requires more effort. Giving shape to one’s schema is where knowledge and authority come in. Some authority, someone you admire, may like music you dislike and because you take this person seriously.
Raoul gave us an illustration of him listening to the music of his colleague which he found irritating but had to take the attitude that the music could be liked because someone he respected obviously liked it. This became the occasion for him to investigate the music and he grew to like it. And so we decided we had found the next step. Beauty is the joy at finding something to grow into, to unfold yourself into as it were. Beauty is the exploration of the unknown with that which you know. And what you know tries to accommodate what surprises you with joy. By exploring that which you do not know with what you do know, you transform what you know and make it grow. That was good. So beauty is the joy one feels at one’s growth of knowledge and one’s grasp of the world.
So as we were doing so well, talking quite unashamedly and with a singular lack of embarrassment about beauty, what is it that makes some of us embarrassed to talk about beauty? There is, following G.E. Moore, a distinction to be made between what we mean when we use the word beauty and what things or situations or events we find beautiful. With the word beauty we might mean the sense of personal joy as we find things that fill us with joy, be it the cathartic joy of tragedy.
When we look for things that are beautiful we find ourselves speaking crudely, we are speaking on credit, because all we appear to be saying is that this thing gives us joy. Can we tell each other what we believe is the causal network of our joy? Could we enjoy the logic and theology of causality? For instance, the tray upon which the beer was served has a causal logic to its form which can be found enjoyable in the same way a puzzle or a game can be found enjoyable. A person is capable of enjoying and finding beautiful the way the tray’s surface is ‘especially designed’ to stop glasses from sliding about on it as the waiter dances through the cafe. A person can enjoy the design of the beer glass with its rim to stop fingers slipping, its heavy bottom to make it stable, its volume which speaks of generous measures etc. This is the beauty of functionalism, which is a beauty of the understanding.
Here however, we involve not just teleology in our judgment, the idea of things having a purpose and being designed for that purpose, but also that of use-finding, of things affording a use and the joy of finding that use in that shape or quality. Affordism, if we might call it so, is the complement of functionalism. Affordism seeks possibilities for use in things that, through our exploration of their qualities or properties, offer possibilities of application and use.
There is a relation here to Rick’s schema. Functionalism seeks to privilege a use and makes forms follow it. As we noticed in an earlier phase of the conversation we need knowledge of purpose and familiarity with the purposeful activity before we can enjoy functionalism as beauty: We need to know the purpose of something to discover the delight of its adapted form. With affordism we need to be able to enjoy exploring any object to see what it is capable of. Here the knowledge we need is certainly open-ended, but our experience of doing things nevertheless deep and wide. Affordism engages our exploratory capacities.
One last point: When we declare this beautiful and this ugly we engage in society. Beauty engages us in politics, in justice and in economics. Beauty commits us to this rather than that; it makes us prioritise. Our differences in taste shape us socially. Taste shapes culture, shapes society, taste in everything. There is politics in beauty because we use judgment to decide our priorities. In a negative sense we might mention the case of Le Corbusier and Judas Iscariot disapproving of beautiful things as money wasted. There is justice in beauty, even if only in the special sense that we find it easy to justify finding things beautiful that others find beautiful. As we share the judgment, we no longer bother so much about the reasons underpinning that judgment. Beauty is an economical force, to call something beautiful is to judge its value in whatever currency that value is expressed. There are more ways to illustrate how beauty engages with politics, justice and economics, but it was getting late. We paid for our drinks and left.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
copyright © jacob voorthuis 1994-2014
All written material on this page is copyrighted.
Please cite Jacob Voorthuis as the author and Voorthuis.net as the publisher.